The Book of Psalms (the Psalter) is the favorite book of the Bible for many Christians. It is a book toward which I find myself frequently gravitating. Why is this the case? A few answers might be as follows:
- Many of our hymns are based upon portions or phrases from the Book of Psalms.
- He Leadeth Me by Joseph Gilmore – Psalm 23
- The King of Love My Shepherd Is by Henry Baker – Psalm 23
- Be Still My Soul by Katherine von Schlegel – Psalm 46:10
- The Broken Heart by Thomas Dennis – Psalm 69:20
- Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken by John Newton – Psalm 87
- Joy to the World by Isaac Watts – Psalm 98
- Praise My Soul the King of Heaven by Henry Lyte – Psalm 103
- Unto the Hills by J. D. S. Campbell – Psalm 121
- I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord by Timothy Dwight – Psalm 137:5-6 (esp. stanza 3)
- All Creatures of Our God and King by Francis of Assisi – Psalm 148
- And many others could be mentioned.
- We have probably memorized more verses from the Psalms than from any other book.
- The Book of Psalms is the most frequently quoted book in the New Testament.
- It is frequently quoted in the OT, too. (There are many parallels in the historical books and direct quotations in the prophets.)
Throughout the centuries commentators have written about the way the Psalter probes, exposes, and instructs the hearts of the saints. I offer here a sampling of some of my favorite quotes on the Psalter.The Psalter is also the most translated book of the Bible. Jerome began his Latin translation with the Book of Psalms and was not satisfied until he had retranslated it for the third time. NT Bibles are often published with the book of Psalms at the end.
The Psalter served as the worship manual of Israel and has continued to serve the church in a similar fashion. It is a guide to both corporate and personal worship. While it contains some historical material, it is not a historical book. Although it contains some prophetic material, it is not a prophetical book either. It is a book written and shaped over a period of 1,500 years by a number of different people. It is a book that gives us a glimpse into the life of prayer, praise, and piety. It is a collection of God-inspired songs, hymns, and prayers that serve as models for both individual and corporate worship.
We need to learn how to pray. We need to learn how to praise. We need to learn to live with God-honoring piety. The Psalter guides us in each of these areas. It invites us to eavesdrop on the prayers of saints from long ago, to lift up our hands with them in universal and everlasting praise to Yahweh, and to be instructed in the way of true happiness.
What the Commentators Have Said
In his Letter to Marcellinus, Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, argued that,
[I]n the Psalter…you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.
…For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in man. For no matter what you seek, whether it be repentance and confession, or help in trouble and temptation or under persecution, whether you have been set free from plots and snares or, on the contrary, are sad for any reason, or whether, seeing yourself progressing and your enemy cast down, you want to praise and thank and bless the Lord, each of these things the Divine Psalms shows you how to do, and in every case the words you want are written down for you, and you can say them as your own.
(Athanasius. The Life Of Antony And The Letter To Marcellinus, translated by Robert C. Gregg, Paulist Press, New York; 1980, pp. 101-129.)
In the Psalms we looked into the heart of all the saints, and we seem to gaze into fair pleasure gardens–into heaven itself, indeed–where blooms in sweet, refreshing, gladdening flowers of holy and happy thoughts about God and all his benefits.
(Martin Luther. Luther’s Works, vol. 35: Word and Sacrament I. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960, 255-56.)
I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated….It is by perusing these inspired compositions, that men will be most effectually awakened to a sense of their maladies, and, at the same time, instructed in seeking remedies for their cure. In a word, whatever may serve to encourage us when we are about to pray to God, is taught us in this book.
(John Calvin in “The Author’s Preface” to Calvin’s Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 1, p. xxxvii.)
Fast-forwarding to the twentieth century Tremper Longman has written that,
The Psalms are a kind of literary sanctuary in the Scripture. The place where God meets his people in a special way, where his people may address him with their praise and lament.
(Tremper Longman. How to Read the Psalms, p. 12.)
[T]he Psalter, taken on its own terms, is not so much a literary library, storing up standard literature for cultic requirements, as a hospitable house, well lived in, where most things can be found and borrowed after some searching, and whose first occupants have left on it everywhere the imprint of their experiences and the stamp of their characters.
(Derek Kidner. Psalms 1-72: An Introduction & Commentary, p. 18.)
A Bit of the Structure
As you look at the structure of the Psalter you will see a progression of sorts from a high concentration of laments to a crescendo of praise. Sprinkled throughout are glimpses into the life of piety. Here is a basic outline of the major divisions in the Psalter:
- Book I – Psalms 1-41
- Book II – Psalms 42-72
- Book III – Psalms 73-89
- Book IV – Psalms 90-106
- Book V – Psalms 107-150
These divisions are indicated by the appearance of doxological statements at the conclusion of each.
- Doxology—41:13 “Blessed be the LORD God of Israel from everlasting, and to everlasting. Amen, and Amen.”
- Doxology—72:18-19 “Blessed be the LORD God, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things. And blessed be his glorious name for ever: and let the whole earth be filled with his glory; Amen, and Amen.”
- Doxology—89:52 “Blessed be the LORD for evermore. Amen, and Amen.”
- Doxology—Psalm 150 serves as a doxology for the entire Psalter, as well as for the final book.
The first two books are predominantly psalms of David.
- David—Pss. 3-9, 11-32, 34-41 (Ps. 2 is ascribed to David in Acts 4-25; Pss. 9 and10 were more than likely united at first; likewise with Pss. 32 and 33), 51-66, 68-70
- The sons of Korah—Pss. 42-49
- Asaph—Ps. 50
- Unknown—Pss. 67, 71
- Solomon—Ps. 72
Book 3 is dominated by Levitical authors.
- Asaph—Pss. 73-83
- The sons of Korah—Pss. 84-85, 87
- David—Ps. 86
- Heman—Ps. 88
- Ethan—Ps. 89
Books 4 and 5 are full of late compositions and are predominantly anonymous (regarding human authorship).
- Moses—Ps. 90
- Unassigned—Pss. 91-100, 102, 104-106, 107, 111-121,123, 125-126, 128-130, 132, 134-137, 146-150
- David—Pss. 101, 103, 108-110, 122, 124, 131, 139-145
- Solomon—Ps. 127
Here is a summary of authorship according to the superscriptions—
- David wrote 73
- Solomon wrote 2
- Moses wrote 1
- The sons of Korah wrote 11
- Asaph wrote 12
- Ethan wrote 1
- Heman wrote 1
- 48 are anonymous
Having considered the authors you can begin to think back to some of their circumstances and understand the types of psalms they would have penned. Many of David’s psalms were penned during times of distress. Most of the lament psalms are from the pen of David. (The psalms of David are shown in red.)
- Individual Lament – Book 1: 3-7, 13, 17, 22, 25, 26, 28, 35, 38 Book 2: 43, 51, 52, 54-57, 59, 61, 62, 64, 69, 70, 71 Book 3: 77, 86, 88, 89 Book 4: 102 Book 5: 109, 120:2, 123, 126,130, 139-144
- Individual or Communal Lament – Book 1: 10, 12
- Communal Lament – Book 2: 44, 60 Book 3: 74, 79, 80, 83, 85 Book 4: 90
Thus the first two books are dominated by psalms of lament.
There is a bit of a mixture in the books 3-5, however the dominance of praise in the final book, and especially the final five psalms, is unmistakable.
- Prayers of Praise – Book 1: 16, 21 Book 2: 63, 67 Book 3: 89
- Significant mix of Lament and Praise – Book 1: 25, 31, 36, 40 Book 2: 71, 77 Book 3: 89 Book 5: 126
- Psalms of Praise
- Nature psalms Book 1: 8, 19, 29 Book 3: 104 Book 5: 148
- Special Hallelujah psalms Book 4: 103-106 Book 5: 107 (Notice the phrases “Bless the LORD,” “Praise the LORD” (hallelujah), and “Oh give thanks to the LORD.”)
- Great Hallelujah psalms Book 5: 111-118
- Small Hallelujah psalms Book 5: 134-139
- Final Hallelujah psalms Book 5: 145-150
In my next post, Tuesday the 5th, I will share links to a number of sources I’ve collected that have been helpful to me in studying the Psalms. On Wednesday and Friday I intend to conclude this Introduction by drawing out the highlights of the three themes introduced above.